Education savings accounts and trusting parents

Travis Pillow

DENVER – There were more than a few wet eyes in a room full of education reform advocates when Katie Swingle told her story of finding the right school for her son.

After learning a traditional public-school setting wouldn’t work, she found a specialized private school that could help her son overcome autism, dyslexia, and speech apraxia. She now has hope he’ll return to public school one day.

On Thursday, Swingle, who has also wowed Florida legislators with her story, said that as states expand educational choice for students with special needs, other parents’ stories might be different from hers.

While she used a Personal Learning Scholarship Account* to send her son to a school that gave him the support he needed, she said other parents might send their children to a more traditional school, but use their education savings accounts to pay for therapies like applied behavior analysis, or other educational expenses.

“Every kid needs something different,” she said during a discussion of education savings accounts at the Foundation for Excellence in Education’s annual policy summit in Denver. “We needed Woodland Hall [Academy].”

As more parents start using educational choice accounts to pay for things beyond school tuition, it raises other questions — and possibilities. It’s hard enough to provide a clear, agreed-upon measure of school quality. But it might be even harder to attribute test scores, learning gains or graduation rates to therapeutic programs, tutors, or groups of parents who purchase curriculum and help their children learn at home.

Adam Peshek, school choice policy director for the Foundation of Excellence in Education, said test scores might help parents track the progress of their children, but to judge the quality of various education providers, states might need to try something different.

“Have parents be required to rate their experience with vendors,” he said. “Let’s use what they know to create real accountability.”

Swingle said many parents, especially those with special needs children, are making active decisions about their children’s education already.

“We have to put more faith in parents,” she said. Not every parent might have the expertise to comparison-shop among curriculum providers or drive across town to check out schools. “But that’s where we have each other. The poorest, least-educated autism mom is on Facebook.”

The challenge, then, is giving these parents the tools to make the most informed decisions possible.

*Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog and employs the author of the this post, helps administer the scholarship accounts in Florida.

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